WARNING: This story contains details of intimate partner violence.
A jury sided Wednesday with Johnny Depp in his libel lawsuit against ex-wife Amber Heard, awarding the Pirates of the Caribbean actor more than $10 million US and vindicating his allegations that Heard lied about Depp abusing her before and during their brief marriage.
But in a split decision, the jury also found that Heard was defamed by one of Depp’s lawyers, who accused her of creating a detailed hoax that included roughing up their apartment to look worse for police. The jury awarded her $2 million US in damages.
The verdicts bring an end to a televised trial that Depp had hoped would help restore his reputation, though it turned into a spectacle that offered a window into a vicious marriage.
Heard, who was stoic in the courtroom as the verdict was read, said she was heartbroken.
“I’m even more disappointed with what this verdict means for other women,” she said in a statement posted on her Twitter account.
“It’s a setback. It sets back the clock to a time when a woman who spoke up and spoke out could be publicly humiliated. It sets back the idea that violence against women is to be taken seriously.”
Depp, who was not in court Wednesday, posted a statement on Instagram saying, “the jury gave me my life back. I am truly humbled.”
“I hope that my quest to have the truth be told will have helped others, men or women, who have found themselves in my situation, and that those supporting them never give up,” he said.
2018 op-ed at centre of lawsuit
Depp sued Heard for libel in Fairfax County Circuit Court over a December 2018 op-ed she wrote in The Washington Post describing herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse.” His lawyers said he was defamed by the article even though it never mentioned his name.
The jury found in Depp’s favour on all three of his claims relating to specific statements in the 2018 piece.
Throughout the proceedings, Depp fans lined up overnight for coveted courtroom seats. Spectators who couldn’t get in gathered on the street to cheer Depp and jeer Heard whenever they appeared outside.
A crowd of about 200 people cheered when Depp’s lawyers came out after the verdict. “Johnny for president!” one man yelled repeatedly.
Greg McCandless, 51, a retired private detective from Reston, Va., stood outside the courthouse wearing a pirate hat and red head scarf, a nod to Depp’s famous role as Capt. Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean series.
“I do believe that there was defamation, and I do believe that it did hurt his career,” McCandless said. “I think the jury heard the evidence, and the verdict was just.”
In evaluating Heard’s counterclaims, jurors considered three statements by a lawyer for Depp who called her allegations a hoax. They found she was defamed by one of them, in which the lawyer claimed that she and friends “spilled a little wine and roughed the place up, got their stories straight,” and called police.
Sydni Porter, 30, drove an hour from her home in Maryland to show support for Heard. She said the verdict was disappointing, but not surprising, and sends a message to women that “as much evidence as you have [of abuse], it’s never going to be enough.”
The jury found Depp should receive $10 million US in compensatory damages and $5 million US in punitive damages, but the judge said state law caps punitive damages at $350,000 US, meaning Depp was awarded $10.35 million US.
Trial testimony focused largely on abuse claims
While the case was ostensibly about libel, most of the testimony focused on whether Heard had been physically and sexually abused, as she claimed. Heard enumerated more than a dozen alleged assaults, including a fight in Australia — where Depp was shooting a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel — in which Depp lost the tip of his middle finger and Heard said she was sexually assaulted with a liquor bottle.
Depp said he never hit Heard and that she was the abuser, though Heard’s attorneys highlighted years-old text messages Depp sent apologizing to Heard for his behaviour as well as profane texts he sent to a friend in which Depp said he wanted to kill Heard and defile her dead body.
In some ways, the trial was a replay of a lawsuit Depp filed in the United Kingdom against a British tabloid after he was described as a “wife beater.” The judge in that case ruled in the newspaper’s favour after finding that Heard was telling the truth in her descriptions of abuse.
In the Virginia case, Depp had to prove not only that he never assaulted Heard, but that Heard’s article — which focused primarily on public policy related to domestic violence — defamed him. He also had to prove that Heard wrote the article with actual malice. And to claim damages, he had to prove that her article caused the damage to his reputation as opposed to any number of articles before and after Heard’s piece that detailed the allegations against him.
The case captivated millions through its gavel-to-gavel television coverage, including impassioned followers on social media who dissected everything from the actors’ mannerisms to the possible symbolism of what they were wearing.
Both performers have emerged from the trial with their reputations in tatters and prospects for their careers unclear.
‘No winners’ in trial, analyst says
Eric Rose, a crisis management and communications expert in Los Angeles, called the trial a “classic murder-suicide.”
“From a reputation-management perspective, there can be no winners,” he said. “They’ve bloodied each other up. It becomes more difficult now for studios to hire either actor because you’re potentially alienating a large segment of your audience who may not like the fact that you have retained either Johnny or Amber for a specific project because feelings are so strong now.”
Depp, a three-time best actor Oscar nominee, had until recent years been a bankable star. His turn as Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean films helped turn the series into a global franchise, but he’s lost that role. He was also replaced in the third Fantastic Beasts movie, The Secrets of Dumbledore, a Harry Potter spin-off film.
Despite testimony at the trial that he could be violent, abusive and out of control, Depp received a standing ovation Tuesday night in London after performing for about 40 minutes with Jeff Beck at the Royal Albert Hall.
Heard’s acting career has been more modest, and her only two upcoming roles are in a small film and the upcoming Aquaman sequel due out next year.
Depp’s lawyers fought to keep the case in Virginia, in part because state law provided some legal advantages compared with California, where the two reside. A judge ruled that Virginia was an acceptable forum for the case because The Washington Post’s printing presses and online servers are in the county.
The bar for proving defamation is considered very high for public figures in the U.S.
Former politicians such as Sarah Palin and Devin Nunes have recently been unsuccessful in their bids to hold publications liable for statements they said damaged their reputations.
Some defamation lawsuits are resolved with a settlement before trial, as happened when the previously unknown Kentucky student Nick Sandmann reached agreements with the Washington Post and NBC News. The controversy surrounded the reporting of Sandmann’s actions in 2020 when he encountered an Indigenous activist at an event in Washington, D.C.